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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Why Chromebooks?

Our fall deployment of take-home Chromebooks to all of our district's high school students (the first phase of an eventual 1:1 throughout Shelby County) is getting closer! The 2000+ devices are now imaged, and are currently being tagged for inventory.

Recently, a principal from another Kentucky county emailed and wanted to know about the advantages of Chromebooks over other devices.  They are certainly becoming a popular choice for educators; in the third quarter of 2014, Chromebooks outsold iPads (the previous lead selling device for education) for the first time in the U.S.  In the months since, that trend has continued, and widened. Of course, popularity alone shouldn't dictate your choices. But after reflecting on the principal's question, I realized I had an important topic for a blog entry.

I won't pretend that my reasons for why Chromebooks are a strong contender for your school or district’s digital conversion plan are terribly unique; just Google the question, and many of the following reasons will pop up. But I hope my thoughts on the subject and a few anecdotes will add something original to the discussion.

1. For writing and composition, a built-in keyboard trumps a touchscreen tablet.  Students find ways to “type” even on smartphones, and yes, Bluetooth keyboards can be purchased for tablets. However, Chromebooks (like other laptops) make long-form writing much easier right out of the box.

2.  The Chromebook naturally builds on the power of GAFE.  Since a Chromebook is in essence a plastic construction that surrounds and delivers a Chrome browser, the integration of Google Drive or Google Apps for Education (GAFE) should be a given. Creating Google Docs and using other Google web-based tools are naturally easy and intuitive on a Chromebook.

3.  The Chromebook will address 90% of the tasks your students want to accomplish.  When our district was exploring device options, we visited the Chicago Community Consolidated School District 59 (CCSD59) and spent time with Ross Vittore (Director of Innovative Learning) and the district’s Innovation Coaches.  Ross shared a great story that had a profound impact for us.  Early in CCSD59’s device decision process, they asked at a meeting of stakeholders (teachers, administrators, parents, and students) a simple question: “What do you want students to be able to do?”  When they compiled their list and reviewed it afterwards, they realized that with only a handful of exceptions (shoot HD video, run high-performance AutoCAD software), a typical Chromebook could do the job on a daily basis.  It is more important to look at devices from this end of the telescope than get mired in a “Mac versus Window,” "laptop versus tablet," or similarly unproductive discussion.  (Note that Chrome apps and extensions are always growing, and can even handle many traditionally program-based functions such as cloud-based video editing with WeVideo.) One last point to make: those existing iPad carts or desktop computers will still fulfill a need in a 1:1 Chromebook school, as they offer opportunity to access resources specific for limited-time projects.

4.  Under ten second bootup time!  The Chrome OS is extremely efficient, so when you turn on the power, the startup is quick.  This is different than, say,  a Windows laptop that can sometimes take a few minutes to get to the desktop which means you lose precious instructional time. If you don't have a 1:1 but want to use carts of Chromebooks, you can also set them up in "kiosk" mode which allows clean wiping of the hard drive as you quickly reset between users.

5.  The Chromebook does have offline capabilities.  The number one concern about Chromebooks is, unlike a typical laptop, “it can’t work without the Internet.”  It is true that Chromebooks are limited without the Internet -- but aren’t all laptops and tablets limited if there is no connection?  The bigger point is that the Chromebook does not become a brick if the Internet is unavailable. Once you allow the Google Drive to sync to your Chromebook, there are several functions you have even without Internet access, such as viewing and editing Google Docs, viewing PDF files, and accessing a thumb drive.  Remember also that edits of Docs will “update” to your cloud the moment your Chromebook hits the Internet again.  (For more about offline capabilities, visit this site.)

6.  Easy administration via an admin console.  With administrative privileges, districts can easily (with a few clicks of checking or unchecking boxes) change student permissions, push out apps and extensions, and other management functions.  For more information on Chromebook management, visit here.

7.  You can instantly swap out units as the Drive work is cloud-based.  If you had Windows, Macs, or tablets, work saved to their hard drives or personalized program configurations will be lost if the device “dies” or is lost.  On the other hand, since Chromebooks saves work to the Google Drive cloud, you will gain access to your work the moment you log in with another Chromebook.  (For that matter, you will have access to your files and folders once you log in with your Chrome browser on any device.)   Other personalized aspects, such as your Chrome apps and extensions, will re-install once you log in again.

8.  The cost of Chromebooks is lower than most devices.  I deliberately put this one last, since price concerns should not be the main factor when picking devices.  However, there is no denying this is an attractive feature of Chromebooks, which usually range from $200 to $300.  (The difference in price is mainly due to local hard drive storage space for downloaded files and the speed of the device’s processor.)  Also, Chromebooks choices are increasing; for example, a new model by Asus is a 10” touchscreen hybrid (Flip C100PA).

Before we leave this discussion, two final points to make.

First, be wary of thinking Chromebooks, or any one device, will be your "silver bullet." I briefly mentioned in #3 how Chromebooks can be a great complimentary device to existing edtech in your building. This is what I call "Garlic Necklace" thinking, and I expand on the concept in a previous blog entry.

Our superintendent Dr. Neihof believes strongly in the need for "deeper learning." In essence, deeper learning involves student self-directed mastery of multiple areas (content, collaboration, and communication) while maintaining an academic mindset. (It should be noted that education leaders need to be prepared for deeper learning as well.) This leads me to my second point. Technology is certainly a powerful means to this deeper learning, but is not the ends. We should be mindful as always that a Chromebook or iPad or access to GAFE is merely a vehicle on the pathway to deeper learning -- and without direction, a road map or intentionality, a vehicle might as well be in the garage.

Do you integrate Chromebooks prominently in your district or school? What are your thoughts on the device and its impact on student learning? Share in the Comments below.

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